RPG Evolution: The Half-Edition Shuffle

The next edition of Dungeons & Dragons is finally on the horizon, but it's not here just yet. So when do publishers makes the shift?


A Historical Model​

D&D has been through several editions in recent memory, but few match the recent transition between two compatible editions. Although backwards compatibility is often promised, it's rarely delivered. And there's also the consideration of the thousands of small press publishers created through the Open Game License movement, which didn't exist before Third Edition. Of all the edition shifts, the 3.0 to 3.5 transition seems closest to what D&D is going through right now, so it's a good place to start this thought experiment.

Compatible, Sort Of​

Fifth Edition's transition to Sixth involves tweaks to the game. Those tweaks seemed largely cosmetic, at first. With the release of Mordenkainen's Monsters of the Multiverse, it's clear that the spellcasting section of monsters is going to be significantly changed. In short, while players may find their characters compatible with the latest edition of D&D, DMs may find their monsters aren't. And that's a problem for publishers. But mechanically, all of these issues can be addressed. What really matters is what customers think. And that's often shaped by branding.

What a Half-Edition Means​

The transition between Third Edition and 3.5 was more significant than many publishers were expecting. You can see a list on RPG Stack Exchange, which shows just how much the new edition changed the game.

This did not go unnoticed by consumers. The OGL movement was still developing but it caught many publishers by surprise, including the company I wrote for at the time, Monkeygod Publishing (they're no longer in business). When we released my hardcover book Frost & Fur, the only identifier was the D20 System logo. Little did we know that it was imperative to identify the book as 3.5-compatible (which it was), because stores wouldn't carry it and consumers wouldn't buy it if it wasn't.

There wasn't nearly as much communication from WIzards of the Coast back then as to how to prepare for the edition change, much less columns from the company explaining their strategy. More communication about the upcoming edition may mitigate its impact on third-party publishers.

Between the DM's Guild and DriveThruRPG, there is now an ecosystem that can more readily update itself without taking up shelf space or clogging up inventory. Digital products can be changed, covers can be rebranded, and newsletters can announce the update. Wizards of the Coast has also given considerable lead time on the coming changes by announcing the edition well in advance and updating books piecemeal so developers can see what changed. But there's still one important piece of the puzzle.

What Do Consumers Think?​

One of the ongoing concerns for supporting publishers of Third Edition was how the Open Game License would be updated and, at least as important, how to identify that compatibility.

Updating the OGL enables publishers to ensure their products are compatible. The OGL doesn't specify stat block structure, so it may not even be necessary to update the license much if at all.

Identifying compatibility will be even more critical. At some point, publishers will start identifying their products as Sixth Edition compatible. And that will happen when consumers shift their spending habits.

The Changeover​

But first, WOTC has to declare that Sixth Edition has officially arrived. Wizards was hesitant to put a number on Fifth Edition, preferring instead to indicate it was simply D&D to potentially head off edition controversy. Failure to do that in a timely fashion (or worse, failure to recognize a new edition at all and continue calling it Fifth Edition) will cause potential confusion in the marketplace, with both consumers and publishers.

At some point the tide will turn and consumers will expect compatibility with the new edition. That change is complicated by the fact that Sixth Edition should be largely compatible with Fifth Edition. But only consumers can decide that for sure; if they don't feel it is, there will be a sharp drop off in Fifth Edition buying habits. For smaller publishers, they'll stay close to the market to determine when that shift is happening and how to transition smoothly without harming their business model.

Getting it right can be lucrative. Getting it wrong can sink a company. The market convulsed massively when 3.5 came out, wiping out publishers and game store stock that were unprepared for the change. Here's hoping with enough foresight and planning, we don't have a repeat of the 3.0 transition.
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


There was 12 years between 1st Ed AD&D (1977) and 2nd Ed AD&D (1989) and then 11 years until 3rd Edition

So not really the longest.
AD&D was not complete until 1979 as it was missing the DMG, so shave 2 years, 10 years.

As I said earlier 2e got a 2.5 edition after six years.

Basic is tumultuous, with Holmes, Moldvay and BECMI, which was revised by Alston in 1991 with the Rules Cyclopedia. 8 years for BECMI.

It's a close call between 1e and 5e. We would have to check publication dates! 🙃

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Cry havoc! And let slip the pigs of war!
People seem to get very emotional and upset\elated when a new edition comes out.

Those that get mad seem to forget the whole publishing model. It applies to RPGs. Product needs to keep coming out or these companies will die off.

I don't get to play all the games that I own, and buying a new edition, for me, isn't worth it. I've barely scratched the dozens and dozens of supplements that I have.

I'm glad the demand is there though, means the hobby is alive and has a lot of activity.

I'm slowly falling into my handful of core systems, and I'll probably stay with that. Some weird sense of relief that I don't have to pursue new editions, etc. As I reach my mid 50's, it's more about getting time to play than it is new books and rules.
This is where I am too! I just cracked my satlmarsh book—-it’s good and I have never used it!

we have only played a relative handful of campaigns so it would be odd for me to move on to the next edition. My books look too new!


As long as i get to be the frog
Yes, its tricky and its possible. They certainly can screw it up.

But, they just need to keep the new players coming. We don't all have to get it for it to be a success.

But, they have to keep the new players coming in.
There’s no obvious design choice that accomplishes that.
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I honestly wish they'd have done a half edition between 4E and 5E. I absolutely love everything about 4E there is to the game, except how clunky combat was. If that edition could have been cleaned up with the smoother play, less bloat, easier use, etc of 5E. Man. That would sing. It does make me happy that WotC basically has to go back to the gods and cosmology of 4E when they work with Critical Role products.
What would you consider Essentials? It was a little more stream-lined, less HP for monsters, new skill challenges rules, etc.


Cry havoc! And let slip the pigs of war!
Judging by the huge sales everybody's always talking about, there seems to be no big financial/economical reason for a new edition.

It doesn't really matter that some of us grognard are "getting tired" with the current edition, when we're already into the hobby since a long time we will more or less fuel the hobby with the same money, whether they release new books for the current edition or for an entirely new one (worst that can happen is we might want to try another RPG altogether, but if WotC itself released books with variant systems and fantasy settings, this would still be a lot in their own hands). On the other hand, newcomers almost always buy first whatever is the current edition, because they don't have yet much parameters for comparison, and a lot of the PHBs still sold today are likely bought by new players.

I'd rather think that WotC feels compelled to publish something big in 2024 only because it's the 50th anniversary, and it would feel a bit underwhelming not to do so.

And the other reason for WotC wanting to update the game, is to follow social and cultural trends. We've already seen it with new approaches to races and alignment, in more rules terms they might also decide they want to simplify some areas and complicate others, if they are aware of certain trends in the gaming industry for example. This doesn't seem to me enough to call it a new edition entirely, but an incremental progress, and it CAN be backwards compatible if done right.
I do not fault them but I suspect when doing well most big businesses want to do even better.

moar munny!

it’s ok—-they have a great deal from me. It will move to a trickle unless a new edition just offers value I cannot resist.

I think my tradition of skipping even editions is likely to continue a while longer.

I want to see what they intend to put in to replace all the "cultural" stuff they have removed from the various races, which currently means they are really bland IMHO. They really need to do something there.

Under the new paradigm, there are some subraces that will have to be fundamentally reimagined or dropped. Without fixed ASIs and cultural abilities, what's left of mountain dwarves and rock gnomes?

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
I want to see what they intend to put in to replace all the "cultural" stuff they have removed from the various races, which currently means they are really bland IMHO. They really need to do something there.

While I can see a need and I'm actually interested in separating racial traits from cultural ones I've not been a huge fan how they have implemented it so far (It isn't cultural that a Goliath will on average be stronger than a halfling), so I doubt an edition that embraces these recent changes will interest me at all. Well unless they go a long way to putting back in some of the stuff they have taken out, but perhaps with more options.
I think it's pretty clear by now that they intend to do nothing with the cultural stuff. There's no room for it anymore without completely changing the origin system, like they did in Level Up.

I had friends in the late 90's that were useing skills and powers, combat and tactics and the third one I always forget and called it 3e
Third one was spells and magic IIRC.
We didn't call it 3e, because when I started with ADnD, I did not know anything about editions. I realized it far later that there were other D&D's.
At some point I noticed the 2nd edition tag, and then we played the game "Stronghold" and were irritated by race = class. Later I found the Rules Cyclopedia in a shop.
I guess sometimes ignorance is bliss, because we never thought ADnD2e was lacking in any way, we liked the player options (but carefully decided what to use and what not - > we tried everything but often went back to vanilla, because the game often got more complicated and not better).
We also were never irritated by baatezu and Tanari, it was just what lawful and chaotic fiends were called.

Under the new paradigm, there are some subraces that will have to be fundamentally reimagined or dropped. Without fixed ASIs and cultural abilities, what's left of mountain dwarves and rock gnomes?

Exactly. Not worth existing as subclass. Culture can easily be integrated in (hopefully a bit enhanced) backgrounds.

I think basic armor and weapon proficiency belongs to the soldier background. I could also see cultural/background feats to be taken at level 1.

Edit: I mean, a mountain dwarf born on an isolated Island should really not be trained in armor proficiencies.

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